Unfinished Country, Unfinished Problem

a landscape view of a large hill rolling into the ocean

We are taught in business school to solve problems – diagnose the symptoms, figure out the issues, build on assets, relationships, and capabilities, and design solutions that leave those we are serving better off. So it was frustrating to me, as an MBA student, to face my first encounter with a truly wicked problem, a problem that is a complex web of interrelated complications that by definition evades a solution. That was our Business on the Frontlines project in East Timor.

Our well-regarded international humanitarian partner had asked our team for investment ideas to increase livelihoods and improve the quality of life among the isolated and impoverished rural communities. Before arriving, I wondered just how rural a community could really be on an island just 165 miles long and 60 miles wide. Timor-Leste was one of Marco Polo’s spice islands, and the soil remained lush and fertile. Agricultural supply chains always worked in my experience, as people have to eat. How hard could it be to bring agricultural goods to markets here?

The thing about working on a wicked problem is that every time you think you’ve solved for one piece of the problem, a new problem emerges. There is no stopping rule. No right or wrong answer, and no way to test ideas. As our jeep finally pulled into the village of Aileu, I began to understand what we were up against.

My team had assumed basic roads and infrastructure in our problem solving. Now it was clear that rural villages, even this one only 25 miles away, were completely isolated and locked off from markets on the island. Making things worse, imported food gets dumped into the main port at a low cost. Timor-Leste’s economy running on the U.S. Dollar makes it cheap to import goods to Dili; however, it prohibits local farmers from being able to compete domestically, much less compete in the export market. Even if they could get their products to Dili, there’s no competing with Vietnam, Thailand, or Indonesia on the price of rice.Aileu is 25 miles from Dili though it had taken nearly 2 hours to arrive as our jeep battled the mountainous terrain and pivoted the route each time a mudslide crossed our path. Nearly two decades after Timor-Leste won its independence in the bloody war against Indonesia, roads were essentially nonexistent. I got out of the jeep and immediately my upset stomach relieved itself. These farmlands were not the rolling hills of Northern Wisconsin that I was used to.

As I tried to shake off my nausea, I took in the scenic views of the village and returned an apologetic smile to the curious and sympathetic smiles of community members. A young woman brought me a plastic cup of water, which I sipped graciously. It was nearly 100oF with humidity levels around 90% as rain showers passed by every few hours, offering a short reprieve from the sweltering sun, though making it impossible to ever dry off. I could not imagine farming in this weather, though I would soon find out.

a group of adults with pants and skirts rolled up as they work in muddy watter

The following week, we traveled several hours east to a village called Bucoli. In Bucoli, we stayed in the home of a family as there were no lodging options on this part of the island. After breakfast and sending the children off to school, we left for the fields. This did not feel so different from farming in Wisconsin. When we got to the rice paddy, we spent all day in the hot sun, up to our knees in muddy water, bent over planting rice seedlings. The family would keep planting for the next two weeks. The next three months would be spent carefully tending to the paddy while waiting patiently for its yields. As we washed up and prepared food for dinner, our hosts told us about what the Timorese call hunger season.

Hunger season lasts from November through February. It’s the result of villages being disconnected from markets and supply chains paired with long dry seasons followed by heavy rains and landslides.  In fact, one popular Timorese symbol is the Hanoin sculpture, which represents hunger season. Hunger, malnutrition, starvation. There were more elements to this problem than I had ever grasped. There was also a severity to this problem that I had only now begun to truly understand as I looked into the deep brown smiling eyes of the children in my host family.

Despite hunger, poverty, and a myriad of challenges, Timorese parents are no different than any other parents. All they want for their children is a better future, one with freedom, dignity, and enough to eat.  The young country has built its GDP on oil revenue, which led the way for education reform. Parents were so proud to send their children to Dili to get an education, even if this meant losing their only labor source to help with the farming.

One day we ventured into the foothills of Dili to meet a seed supplier. His name was Nilton and he not only sold seeds and fertilizers, but he also trained farmers to utilize technologies like drip irrigation to increase their yields. When a farmer and his son walked in, we asked one of our translators to help us ask the farmer some questions, as most people spoke Tetun, Portuguese, or Bahasa Indonesia. The farmer’s fifteen-year-old son responded perfectly, “I can speak English. What do you want to know?”

Here was an illiterate father who had clearly made many sacrifices to give his son the education he never had the opportunity to have. The father stood before us grinning from ear to ear. He was so proud to have his son next to him speaking English and telling their family’s story.

a panoramic view of a large field with hills in the background

I will always remember the combination of humility and pride in that father’s eyes and the hope in the eyes of his son. For me, the image of this father and son represents the unfinished work of one generation carried forward by the next. In this moment, I realized that perhaps our team’s project would be unfinished but while we were there, we had much to learn in the way of generosity, resilience, and hope through the human connections we formed with the Timorese people. 

Over time, I came to realize that our unfinished project was like the country itself. It is unsettling to think of East Timor as an unfinished country. Our thoughts on states and nations are that they are settled, developed, and finished. Only Lin Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton admires America as a great “unfinished symphony.” Both East Timor and its economic opportunities are works in progress. I have learned, perhaps a difficult and frustrating lesson, that you have to trust the process of good people focused on good things building a better common future. They may face high seas and headwinds, but given my experience, I would not bet against them. Someday, I know I will return to East Timor as part of another team to continue to be part of their story.